Monday, July 19, 2010

The Buffeted Outre French

The French have an interesting relationship with the French-speaking world. Thankfully, they have not followed the German example of the interwar (actually interwar plus, you know, the entire Hitler regime) period of gathering all of their linguistic compatriots under one polity. However, they do have the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, which is sort of funky. However, two articles in the New York Times in the last few days show two instances where French speakers (or potentially forms thereof) are getting a raw deal. Where's your Francophonie now?

First, we have the always odd state of Belgium. Had Belgium existed in Shakespeare's time, it would have been entirely appropriate to declare that something is rotten in the state of Belgium. While some Belgians would certainly dispute this, the country is sort of a country that is not needed. You know how "C" either makes an "S" sound or a "K" sound, and is therefore largely superfluous? Well, Belgians are (mostly) either Catholic Dutch, or . . . French. Being a Catholic Dutchman was a big deal in the 1830s, but probably not so much today. Being a Walloon (a French Belgian), as opposed to French, is mostly an accident of history. In other words, Belgium is the "C" of Europe.

Where was I? Oh yeah. The Times reports on the never-ending language battles in the suburbs of Brussels. Brussels is officially bilingual. They have these awesome street signs that say things like Rue du Lombard Straat. Anyway, areas are legally designated as French or Flemish (aka Dutch) speaking areas, and there may not be public political or cultural utterances in the other language. Thus, in overwhelmingly French-speaking suburbs that are designated Flemish, some politicians are not being seated after winning races because they campaigned in French. While this is sort of understandable given that the Flemish half of Belgium is far richer now than the French, and that the French have historically been richer and treated the Flemish poorly, it seems a little absurd. If you are wondering why the Belgians don't just split a la the Czechoslovaks . . . well, it's complicated. Brussels is essentially a French-speaking island in the Flemish region. Neither side is willing to give Brussels up in order to be a state. It's almost like another intractable, sometimes silly, sadly deadly conflict . . .

The other French group getting a raw deal has gotten a raw deal for quite a while. Their tale is made into poetry, but the Acadians certainly were ill-treated by the English. Call it "ethnic cleansing" if you want to make it feel more modern. The Acadians (mostly) migrated to then-Spanish Louisiana, and preserved their culture in the bayous. Was that last link mean? Anyway, the Times reports that with the BP oil spill destroying the shrimping and other industries that have sustained the community to this point, the Acadians may be on the move again. That would be a sad cultural loss and would render lots of the "Frenchness" of places in southern Louisiana and Mississippi merely historical (Brett Favre excepted).

So, yeah. Maybe France should do something about this, or something.

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